Mountain Management

The University of Hawaiʻi begins the process for updating its lease for land on the summit of Maunakea

Copy Editor Rosannah Gosser
Photographer Elizabeth Lough

photo of stephanie nagata

The Big Island of Hawaiʻi is internationally known for the astronomical research conducted atop Maunakea. Since 1968, the University of Hawaiʻi has maintained 65-year Master Leases for the Mauna Kea Science Reserve & Related Facilities & Easements. In preparation for the 2033 expiration of these leases, the university is seeking a permit for the issuance of new land authorizations for a portion or all of the land currently held by UH on the mountain.

This past March, the university held three open houses for the public to meet with officials involved in research on Maunakea or in the permit process, ask questions concerning the potential new land authorizations, and contribute comments and suggestions. The first open house was held on March 12 in Waimea, the second on March 13 in Hilo, and the third on March 14 in Honolulu. The public review period, which was extended from its original 30-day deadline of March 27 to April 9, will include the community’s comments both from the open houses and from online forums.

The current lease covers 11,288 acres on the summit where the telescopes and observatories are located, as well as the 19-acre Halepōhaku mid-level facility. Three different alternatives have been put forth regarding how much land the university will seek a permit for. The first option presented is called the “No Action Alternative,” and will result in the current lease expiring in 2033 and the university ceasing all operations on Maunakea. The second option proposes an authorization for reduced areas of land on the mountain, and the third calls for an authorization of the same areas of land.

The process for obtaining new land authorizations goes as follows: in compliance with the laws of the state of Hawaiʻi, the university published an Environmental Impact Statement Preparation Notice for Long-Term Continuation of Astronomy on Maunakea in February. Public input will then be considered in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, produced by UH’s consultant, Planning Solutions, Inc.

After the DEIS is published, another public review period will take place, after which those comments will be reviewed and incorporated into the Final Environmental Impact Statement. When the FEIS is complete, it will either be approved or denied by Governor David Y. Ige, or delegated to the Board of Land and Natural Resources.

This will be the second Environmental Impact Statement Preparation Notice for Long-Term Continuation of Astronomy on Maunakea produced by UH in recent years. An EISPN was issued by the university in late 2014, but by the end of the 30-day public review period, less than 40 comments had been submitted. Governor Ige released a policy statement the following year, specifying that UH must restart the EIS process for a lease extension, as well as a request that any lands held by the university on Maunakea that are not being used for astronomy be relinquished to the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

photo of dan meisenzahl

For the most recently issued EISPN, the public input open house session in Hilo was held at the ʻImiloa Astronomy Center and featured presenters from UH’s Office of Mauna Kea Management and Planning Solutions, Inc., as well as astronomers, archaeologists, rangers from the Department of Land and Natural Resources, and other officials and community members involved in research or preservation on Maunakea.

According to Dan Meisenzahl, UH’s Director of Communications, the entire Environmental Impact Statement process could take up to two years. “The observatories spend millions of dollars operating and maintaining equipment, and they need to have an idea of what the future is going to be like,” says Meisenzahl. “I think it’s fair to say that UH is in full support of astronomy on the mountain. It’s really about the pursuit of knowledge. I would say we’re absolutely in favor of continuing and building onto the work that we’ve done.”

Jim Hayes is the president of Planning Solutions, Inc., the company in charge of drafting the Environmental Impact Statement. Hayes explains the importance of the public review period for the DEIS: “If we get a lot of comments that have a common theme, we can say that all of these people are worried about the same potential problem. We’ll take all of those ideas and try to coalesce them into a mitigation action, and then UH can decide if it’s a feasible alternative.”

The public comment form provided for participants presents several questions that address the EISPN and prompts suggestions to be considered in the DEIS. These questions include whether or not the range of alternatives for new land authorizations are acceptable and if there are certain resources not identified that could be affected by the proposed action.

Because Maunakea is both a significantly sacred site for Hawaiian cultural beliefs and practices, and also an environmentally sensitive habitat, any proposed project must consider its impacts on the mountain’s cultural and natural resources in the Environmental Impact Statement. The Director of the Office of Mauna Kea Management, Stephanie Nagata, explains the university’s role in the maintenance of these resources and what could happen if the first alternative to allow the Master Leases to expire, therefore discontinuing UH’s presence on Maunakea, is decided upon.

“UH currently does intensive management on the mountain, including research to understand and identify what the resources are, as well as monitoring to look at long-term effects on the resources,” says Nagata. “If there was no management on Mauna Kea, no one would know what’s happening with the resources.”

One of the concerns brought up by community members regarding the feasibility of the three alternatives presented in the EISPN is whether or not the Mauna Kea Access Road will be maintained for public use. The road, which connects the university’s General Leases for the Mauna Kea Science Reserve and the Halepōhaku facility, is currently managed by UH through a non-exclusive easement, meaning the public retains free access to the summit. However, this could be negotiable depending on which lease alternative is chosen.

“Public access should not only be for the general public but for cultural practitioners who need access to the summit for their prayers, rituals, and ceremonies,” says Deborah J. Ward, chair of the Sierra Club Moku Loa Group. Ward attended the Hilo open house, primarily to contend that the Sierra Club be consulted in maintaining public access to the road. The public review period for comments that will be included in the DEIS ended April 9. Whether it’s fighting to protect the mountain’s cultural resources or pushing for the continuation of extraterrestrial research, the public’s input makes up a necessary step in the EIS process that will influence the University of Hawaiʻi’s role on Maunakea in 15 years.